health organizations that are just starting to set up their translational research program. In the “Lewis and Clark expedition” model for scientific discoveries, there is a very clear objective. Drawing from the Lewis and Clark expedition, President Jefferson issued a mandate to explore, map, and document the Missouri River and move westward, discovering the most useful waterways from which to engage in commerce from ocean to ocean. There was no time line. The expedition reported back both successes and failures. It had the latest state-of-the-art tools, as well as the funding and support needed not just to test a given hypothesis (that a particular path of navigation was viable) but to engage in pure exploration, both generating and testing hypotheses as it progressed. Applying this expeditionary model to a translational research program would imply a diverse, well-funded, flexible, and independent effort.
As an alternative to this expeditionary model, Simons outlined the “NASA” model. NASA’s Gemini and Mercury programs were concerned primarily with testing and retesting every system and every procedure required to meet the long-term goal before actually mounting the Apollo missions and moving on to the eventual moon landing. Each aspect of the long-term mission was broken down into individual missions, each conducted independently. Rather than invest in broad, sweeping research and letting each incremental discovery redefine the mission, the NASA approach breaks the problem down into discrete units and explores them independently, increasing the likelihood of making the final “moon shot” successful. Simons sees value in such an approach for translational research. “[It would be better to have] 20 Gemini missions in Parkinson’s disease where you learn an enormous amount than it would be to have three failed, large-scale, basically phase 3 trials.”
In every successful grand challenge, there is always someone in charge who has not only the knowledge and vision to guide a program, but also the leadership abilities to get things done, explained Linda Van Eldik, professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Leadership must include people who can be active participants in that vision. One of the biggest leadership challenges for many translational research programs is cultural—specifically, knowing how to navigate the differences in academic and corporate leadership culture.